December 24, 2014


Clark the Shark Takes Heart. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.

Did You Know That I Love You? By Christa Pierce. Harper. $17.99.

Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.

The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Love Bug. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $6.99.

     One of the warmest holidays of the year – or at least one of the most heartwarming –is actually a winter holiday: Valentine’s Day. So kids ages 4-8 and their families, if seeking a touch of warmth during cold days, will especially enjoy books with a Valentine theme, even when the day itself is not especially nearby. The latest Clark the Shark book, about the over-enthusiastic and rather clumsy shark who is always well-meaning despite his exceptionally toothy appearance, is a suitably simple Valentine story even though it is not tied directly to Valentine’s Day. This is actually a birthday story, in which Clark tries to figure out what to give to a girl fish he likes, Anna Angelfish. Clark is the boisterous type who goes out of his way to impress the girl, even though that is not quite what his best friend, Joey Mackerel, is getting at when he tells Clark that “you’ve got to show her how you feel.” Clark tries to prove his athletic prowess and plows into a reef; then he tries to be a hero by rescuing Anna and the other students when their school bus (a submarine) gets stuck, but overdoes things with his strength and makes a mess of everything; and so on. Despondent, Clark listens at last when Joey tells him the best things can sometimes come in small packages. So when Clark finds a heart-shaped shell – a tiny pink one – he thinks that this might be ideal for Anna’s birthday, and sure enough, when he gives it to her, the two end up holding hands. Well, fins, actually, but the basic idea is there. Clark the Shark Takes Heart fits Valentine’s Day just as well as it fits birthdays, because in this case the message is the same: show affection in appropriate ways and, with any luck, it will be reciprocated.

     Christa Pierce has affection shown primarily verbally in Did You Know That I Love You? And that, as it turns out, is more than enough. This too is a general book about love and affection that just happens to fit Valentine’s Day particularly well. The two characters are a little bird and a fox – natural enemies in the real world, but devoted friends here, as the bird expresses love for the fox again and again, through a series of questions: “Did I tell you quite enough?” “Did I show it in my kisses?” “Could you feel it in my hugs?” “Could you taste it in your tea?” And so forth – with every query accompanied by endearing digital illustrations that range from the semi-realistic (a hug) to the purest fantasy (the fox relaxing in a giant mug of tea). The most charming of the many charming illustrations is a two-page nighttime scene showing the fox sleeping curled up beneath a warm-looking blanket, framed by raindrops that that form an arch above him without touching down, and with the moon visible behind the drops – all with the accompanying text, “Was my voice your nighttime chorus, with the rain and chirping bugs?” This is Pierce’s first children’s book, and it is likely to appeal to very young children indeed – even younger than age four – because of the simplicity of both the art and the message.

     Two paperbacks featuring well-known series characters are specifically tied to Valentine’s Day and are pleasant in their own way – although the stories are a little thin and a bit forced, resulting in (+++) ratings for both books. Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine has the childhood version of the endearingly mixed-up adult Amelia learning about Valentine’s Day and having minor misunderstandings that are supposed to reflect the literalism-based mistakes she makes as an adult. For instance, her mother says, “Your snack is in the kitchen, cupcake,” but Amelia has a brownie because she cannot find any cupcakes. Amelia has cards to finish before the next day’s Valentine party at school, so she puts peanuts into the envelope of a card featuring a squirrel saying “I’m nuts 4 you,” heats a card that says “You’re 2 cool,” and so on. Then she has a dream – the funniest part of the book – featuring Cupid, “a giant chocolate squirrel” and “fuzzy sugar bees.” On Valentine’s Day, though, she leaves all the cards on the school bus by mistake, and is very sad momentarily – until she figures out how to come up with a whole set of new cards by writing on a deck of playing cards that her mother just gave her. Of course everything ends happily, as Amelia dances along holding aloft a heart-shaped box she made in school, and the box gets hit by a non-pointy arrow shot by a boy who had to stay home from school that day and for whom Amelia feels sorry, so she gives him all the special cards she had left on the bus. Herman Parish’s story is all right, as are Lynne Avril’s illustrations, but the unbridled enthusiasm and unsuppressed tendency to overdo things – characteristics of the original Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish, who is Herman Parish’s aunt – are largely missing. The young Amelia is nothing particularly special here, although she is certainly pleasant enough. Kids who already enjoy books about Amelia as a child will find much to like in Amelia Bedelia’s First Valentine.

     Similarly, fans of the Berenstain Bears will enjoy Mike Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Love Bug, not only for the story – which is rather slight – but also for the fold-out poster, stickers and Valentine’s Day cards bound into the book. The very mild conflict here involves Sister having to prepare for a class Valentine’s Day party while also getting ready to be flower girl at Cousin Cora’s wedding, which is on the same day. Sister “felt she had hit the love bug jackpot.” She overdoes things by studying wedding books and magazines constantly for days on end, gossiping with a friend about Cousin Cora, and talking incessantly about flowers, makeup, wedding gifts, and so on. Mama thinks this is all a bit much and decides to say something to Sister, but because this is, after all, a Berenstain Bears book – in which kids need only the slightest nudge to do exactly the right thing – the minute Mama starts to explain to Sister that she may be acting a bit inappropriately, Sister herself instantly straightens out, decides that “this wedding thing has been taking up an awful lot of time,” returns to a focus on the school party, and generally becomes a perfect child. And she is a perfect flower girl, too, when Valentine’s Day actually arrives. So everything ends as happily as usual for the Berenstain Bears, and if the story is rather saccharine rather than naturally sweet, kids and families who enjoy these particular characters will not mind the sugary aftertaste a bit.

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